Together they helped create American dance
New biographies of Merce Cunningham, John Cage, and Lincoln Kirstein depict the growth of an art form.
Two new books about major figures of American dance come from differing approaches to the writing of history. Carolyn Brown, the elegant and eloquent onstage partner of choreographer and performer Merce Cunningham from 1952 to 1972, penned Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham, from an I-was-there perspective.
Brown offers a first-hand account of both the beginnings of the Cunningham dance troupe and the degree to which the troupe was shaped by the music and attitudes of the avant-garde composer John Cage. (Cunningham and Cage were both life and professional partners, from their meeting at the Cornish School in Seattle in 1937 until Cage's death in 1992.)
Martin Duber-man, distinguished professor emeritus of history at the City University of New York and author of 20 books, never met Lincoln Kirstein, who was a founding father of the New York City Ballet. Yet Duberman uses Kirstein's diaries and letters, as well as a huge bibliography of Kirstein's publications and numerous interviews with those close to Kirstein to give The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein, his detailed biography of this complex and fascinating man, a you-are-there sense of immediacy.
Both books also give readers a vivid sense of what it was like to live and work during this transformative period of 20th-century American culture.
Different starting points
Despite differences in origins and outlooks, Kirstein, Cunningham, Cage, and Brown all flourished in the heady post-World War II period when the art center shifted from Europe to the United States, with New York as the cultural capital. Dance was a fledgling art form, but its creators mingled freely among the community of visual artists, writers, and musicians. Cunningham, Cage, and Brown were, of course, artists while Kirstein was a backstage entrepreneur, but all four traveled in the same professional circles.
Kirstein arrived in New York first, after growing up in Boston and graduating from Harvard, class of 1930. During the decade that followed, his hand was everywhere, in establishing of the Museum of Modern Art, continuing to work on Hound & Horn – the influential literary magazine he had started in college – and later, during the 1960s, advising on the building of Lincoln Center.
In 1933, Kirstein brought famed choreographer George Balanchine to New York. In 1934 they opened the School of American Ballet. But the New York City Ballet, the troupe he had promised Balanchine he would form, did not take root until 1947.
The classic vs. the modern
Kirstein and Cunningham, Cage and Brown were on opposite sides of the divide between ballet and modern dance, yet all four had an impact on the arts development of the era. Much of the time their careers followed parallel tracks, but occasionally they intersected.
While Kirstein grew up in a wealthy, assimilated Jewish family, with access to money to help fund his ventures, Cunningham and Cage had no resources other than their own ingenuity and the support of their friends. Kirstein fell in love with the notion of classical ballet, an art form born of and fostered by the imperial courts of Europe. Cage and Cunningham were determined to invent a new world of dance, independent of music, incorporating ordinary human moves as choreography, and discarding tradition.
Cunningham, born in the state of Washington, and the Californian Cage were children of the American West, but Kirstein was an Easterner, with values based on the old world. However, they faced similar obstacles in their formative years as they chased financial support for their visions. Cage, Cunningham, Brown, and Brown's husband, composer Earle Brown, all lived in cold-water tenements, while Kirstein begged for funding from family and friends.
"Chance and Circumstance" is centered firmly on the dancing, incorporating some of the most cogent descriptions ever put on paper about Cage's controversial experiments in music and Cunningham's revolutionary choreography. Brown also manages to recreate the love of dancing that drove them, not avoiding the conflicts of egos and hurt feelings within the small group. Kirstein, too, had his insecurities, fueled by tumultuous emotional problems and a robust but unorthodox sexuality.
Today New York City Ballet is ranked as one of the world's great dance companies; the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, still directed by Cunningham, age 87, has influenced the course of contemporary dance around the globe. Brown and Duberman's books are testament to the all-American character traits of perseverance and belief in dreams, colored by the outsized achievements of Kirstein, Cage, Cunningham, and not incidently, Brown herself, as performer, biographer, and autobiographer.
• Iris Fanger is a freelance writer in Brookline, Mass. She was the director of the Harvard Summer Dance Center from 1977-1995.